So in this post I want to tell you about my experience of applying for a Guide Dog. Guide Dogs as an organisation has had an amazing impact on my life over the last year. The London mobility team have been essential in supporting me and helped me reclaim so much confidence and independence!
Please note that this is just my personal experience and for more information on the Guide Dogs application process and any questions you have please check out the information here https://www.guidedogs.org.uk/faqs/guide-dogs/applications/
It never occurred to me that I would even be allowed to apply for a Guide Dog.
I was complaining about being unable to access long white cane training through my local social services and a twitter pal suggested that I contact my local Guide Dogs team. I had no idea they provided that kind of service, but I did a bit of googling and sent an email. A couple of weeks later I had a phone call booked in for an initial conversation about my vision and needs.
That phone call was the first step on an incredible journey. A lovely member of the team asked me questions about my sight loss and what I was finding difficult. She just listened to me in such an open and understanding way, that I burst into tears on the phone. It was a relief to finally be open about how I was feeling. How anxious I was, how I’d started avoiding socialising, or going to the shops or really leaving the house when I didn’t have to because I was scared of falling over, I was so tired all the time just trying to cope. How I was frightened of losing my job because I was having panic attacks on the tube. That I didn’t feel like myself anymore, that I had lost all of my confidence.
She listened to me, and explained how I could start getting some help. The best thing about Guide dogs is that they use a person centred approach, they do everything tailored to your needs and it’s all about what you can do and what you want to achieve!
The next step was that a mobility officer would come and talk to me to work out which services I would most benefit from, including potentially a guide dog.
I replied “A guide dog? But I can still see? Surely I wouldn’t qualify for a guide dog?”
The London team told me that guide dogs are not only for totally blind people and as I’m registered partially sighted I might be considered as a potential applicant. This was a total shock!
Shortly after the phone call I was assigned an orientation and mobility specialist. He turned up at my house and over 3 hours asked me a lot of questions about my vision, how I get around, what I was finding difficult and what I wanted to achieve. Yet again, he just listened to me, and when I started opening up about how I getting anxious about going out alone he replied with 3 simple words.
“That sounds hard”
And I promptly burst into tears, again. However, it was going to be ok because he had a plan! He was going to teach me how to use my long cane properly, help me plan some routes and recommend I get some additional support and training around my sight loss.
Over the next couple of months he helped me learn how to use my long cane safely and independently. He helped me plan the best route to and from work, he taught me how to cross roads safely, how to get up and down stairs and find kerbs or uneven ground. Over time, it was like he was handing me back bits of independence and pieces of confidence.
During our chat and subsequent training my mobility officer concluded that he thought I would be a good candidate for a guide dog application. However, he explained that the process was long and I would need further assessments.
The Pretend Dog
So we completed the paperwork for the guide dog application together. We talked all about where the dog would sleep, go to the toilet and all the practicalities of guide dog ownership. We listed my regular routes, including my work commute, and how I get to my volunteering and social activities. He explained about the rest of the application process and agreed to put me through to the next assessment.
A few weeks later one of the guide dog trainers visited me at home. The guide dog mobility instructor, GDMI, needed to do a mobility assessment so we walked around with my white cane and he saw how I used it. Then the GDMI got out a guide dog harness and explained that he was going to show me what it’s like to be guided by a guide dog, except that he would pretend to be the dog.
It was a bit odd! I held onto the handle and the GDMI held the other end of the harness. We walked round my local area, and got quite a lot of funny looks (according to Other Half). However, it did help me understand how it would be to be guided not by a person or using my cane but by the movements of the harness. They also filmed me to see how quickly I walk, how long my stride is and other factors that would influence the eventual match with a dog.
After the GDMI’s visit the mobility team contacted me and explained they thought the best plan was for me to attend a residential further assessment. This residential was an opportunity for me to work with some dogs in training and undergo a more detailed practical evaluation.
The assessment was at a guide dogs training school. I was part of a group of three other visually impaired ladies who were all doing the further assessment. I got the opportunity to work with lots of dogs in training to really understand what it would be like to be a guide dog owner. We did several walks with different dogs, learning about how they avoid objects, cross roads, use stairs and generally experienced the sensation of being guided by a dog.
I also had a dog stay overnight in my room which was amazing. Astar was a bouncy excitable black lab retriever cross. He was beginning his final training to be a guide dog before he would be matched with a visually impaired person. Astar was very enthusiastic and wanted to charge through doors, speed along the street and take me across roads. He obviously found my dithering a bit frustrating and wanted to show me what a good clever, if slightly fast, dog he was!
Although he was initially a bit wary of me, by the morning we were the best of pals. The minute my alarm went off and I turned the light on, I felt a little wet black nose nudging my arm. He loved his food and found it very difficult to sit still and wait for the whistle command to eat. He did a wiggly bum dance but was extremely good and patient. He did try to eat the bubbles in my bubble bath which was hilarious.
The further assessment was a lot of hard work, and required a huge amount of concentration. I did struggle to get some of the commands right, and occasionally overrode the dog, by making a decision before the dog did. It took a bit of time to really put my trust in the dogs and let them do all the work, but the more I gave over the control and allowed them to guide me, the more amazing it felt!
Throughout the two days we had lots of conversations with the trainers about the differences between using a cane and a guide dog. How much work is involved in being a good guide dog team, the limits of a guide dog and some of the downsides like being refused access to taxis or businesses. We also talked about how much smoother guide dog travel can be, fewer bumps, no more cane tangles, and how the dogs can help with the stress of some experiences.
Instead of being a test, the whole process is a really empowering opportunity to facilitate the best possible decision for you and the guide dogs team.
At the end of the second day I sat down with the team and we talked about what I wanted to do next. They told me that they thought a guide dog was the right mobility solution for me. That I would benefit from the help a guide dog could give, that it would improve my independence and really assist with some of the anxiety I get around going out on my own. However, I said that I wanted to wait a couple of days to really think about everything.
I spent a few days reflecting on the whole experience. I adore dogs, but I knew I had to choose to go on the waiting list for the right reasons.
This time spent making the decision was the most important part of the whole application. It really helped me confirm that this was something I wanted and needed.
Eventually I phoned up the Guide Dogs team and confirmed that yes, I did want to go on the waiting list and they agreed!
I made that phone call 7 months ago and I will probably be waiting another 9 months before I meet my life changer!
It’s a long hard wait. It’s likely that I will have to wait the full 18 months, but if a dog becomes available and is the right match it can happen sooner. The dog has to be just right to meet the workload, aka how much I get out and about, my walking pace, height and also have the confidence to deal with central London on a daily basis!
I’m nearly halfway through but it can’t come soon enough. The team do absolutely continue to support me, I’ve been to lots of really useful sessions and workshops which have given me more skills and confidence, which I’ll talk about another time. I love being involved with Guide Dogs, and I’m looking forward to doing some more volunteering, fundraising and campaigning with the team. However, every time I go in the office and see all the dogs in training my heart aches.
I would like people to share this post, as I wish I had known about all this support sooner. I wouldn’t have been so isolated for so long.
Guide dogs has really made me feel like part of a community, their whole ethos is about empowerment, support and independence. They have helped me embrace my disability and find a voice. I want to spread the word about their fantastic work because I am so grateful for all that they have done for me, even before I’ve got my dog!
Also this post full of pictures of cute guide dogs, and who doesn’t love an adorable assistance doggo?
If you would like to donate to guide dogs and support the amazing work that enables people like me to reclaim their independence find out more about what you can give here https://www.guidedogs.org.uk/how-you-can-help/donating/